Finding Community in a City

“Community is not an ideal; it is people. It is you and I. In community we are called to love people just as they are with their wounds and their gifts, not as we want them to be.”-JEAN VANIER

I’m living in the midst of a holiday season in a metropolitan area.  It’s a time when cities feel frenetic.  Locals are shopping for gifts for loved ones.  Tourists inhale the Christmas spirit each store window has to offer.  And often we may feel overwhelmed and exhausted.  Being an outsider who is residing in a foreign country, where I don’t speak the language, oftentimes I just observe. Paris seems in some ways like any other big city.  Many people live alone in their tiny apartments, and interact with their romantic partners or close friends for lunch or dinner.  It doesn’t seem as if people go outside their own little bubbles.  I’ve accepted this, as it what I am used to.  But last week I had two experiences which warmed my heart and reminded me a sense of community can exist anywhere. 

I was in my favorite gluten free boulangerie last week, which was crowded.  There was minimal seating available.  I asked a woman in a communal table if the space across from her was free.  She nodded.  I began to sip my coffee, and she tried to speak to me in French.  My French is horrible, so then she began speaking in Spanish.  This happens often.  I am mistaken for being some type of Latin.  I answered in Spanish that I was from the United States, and she transitioned to English.  Claudine was this woman’s  name.  She hailed from Morocco, but who has been living in France for years.  A mask covered her face, and a cane graced the table.  As we spoke, she noted how lovely the lattes were.  She stated she should know because she came to the Chambelland boulangerie daily.  Claudine began to tell me she lives in an apartment behind the boulangerie, and each day a staff member will help her walk the steps to her home.   I could have closed our interaction and typed on my computer, as I had planned.  But I welcomed in the moment with this stranger.  As our conversation continued, workers would stop and check in on her.  Claudine created community in this popular establishment, with her loyalty and regularity.  As she was about to be escorted by a worker, she asked me to visit her house.  I agreed.  All three of us walked to her apartment, and thirty minutes I was a guest in her home.   She offered me another coffee, as I continued to eat my pastry from the store.  As we bid farewell, she left an open invitation for me to return to her home. 

Later in the week, I went to a tiny Vietnamese restaurant where I had a similar experience.  My friend Isabella and I grabbed lunch, after a macaron making class at The Galleries Lafayette.  We sat at a table next to these two older women.  At first, they seemed shock that we would sit next to them.  The restaurant was tiny, and they appeared as if they didn’t want to be bothered.  There seemed to be an apparent free spot at a table next to a woman dining alone.  After time, their energy settled.  The older woman sitting next to me attempted to start a conversation with me.  Again it was in French, and again, I simply smiled and noted “Je parle un peu francais.”  I only speak a little French.  She offered to transition to English, and queried where we were from.  When we shared that we were from California, she noted that her grandson lived there and she visited once.  As she spoke about it, it appeared as if it was ages ago.  This woman than said she’s nearly 100 years old, and whispered to me her real age of 98.    We continued to politely chat, and they received their meals first.  Her and I ordered the same dish, a shrimp stir fry. 

At one point the woman got some of the stir friend noodles she was eating on her shirt.  I didn’t notice this, but the waitress did.  The waitress came over to her to wipe it off her shirt and then placed a napkin over her shirt like a bib.  The elder woman told her “Toi es gentille.”  You are kind.  At first, I thought this was strange.  I didn’t know how I would feel if a stranger did this to me, wiping me down, and doting on me.  But then the older woman stated she comes to this specific restaurant daily. “I live above here and I’m too old to cook,” was her response.  When I inquired her favorite dish, “all of them, I rotate,” was her response.  What I was witnessing in this moment was another act of kindness.  Two days after my interaction with Claudine, I observed this.  It was another older woman, who made this Vietnamese restaurant her third space.  Her home.  The staff member cared for her like a family member.  It was beautiful to witness this.  

These two single older women lived alone in Paris.  Their family members did not live in the city, but they created family.  They created community in third spaces.  The staff members at these food establishments went above and beyond their duties and job descriptions and offered support, care, and love to these women for small moments each day.  It was beautiful to observe these warm acts during these cold Parisian days.  And it wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t present enough to chat with these women in my poor French and be willing to go with the flow and engage in conversations with strangers. 

Searching for the Good

I am someone who generally finds myself very optimistic.  For over ten years, I write my daily gratitude.  I hand out these kindness cards (which you may have received).  But I find out that if I am in a funk, I see the negative lining in every situation.  This is normal, we are human.  Life is full of blessings and tragedies.  It’s okay to feel down or to seek out the negative when you are on that pessimistic train.  But sometimes, it takes something for you to make a shift.   You need to step back and see how the world has your back.

This is the current state of my life.  I have been planning this next move in my life for the past several months.  It’s taken many detailed specific steps to get here, but for some reason my next phase of life is not turning out as I planned.  And as I met with friends and family throughout America these past several weeks, this is the story I shared with them.  The story has been what has been going wrong in my life. 

It’s as if your hopes and attachments are temporarily tied to one particular dream, and you have a narrow focus to only see that reality.  But if that reality doesn’t turn out as planned, then what?  I can tell you from experience.  If your goal and dream doesn’t come true, due to circumstances out of your control, you go through the stages of grief.  Yes that’s right, Elizabeth Kubler Ross named these stages of grief with the following emotions:  Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.  And this is what I went through, perhaps you as well.  This may have been for a recent dream or an old one, that you had to let go of.  Grief is hard. I am not going to drag you throughout the entire journey (as this website is called it only takes a smile) but there is a shift that occurs when you get to the acceptance phase.  You begin to see how the universe is working for you.

Acceptance.  This is where I am at.  

Currently I am in New York City for the third time in almost six weeks.  I am lucky that a high school friend has offered me to stay in her flat, as she travels to Europe.  In exchange, I watch her cat.  I have never been much of a cat person, as I am allergic.  But something shifted in this trip.  In addition to being on a daily dose of Zyrtec, I began to see the kind and curious nature of cats, as I visited family and friends.  I saw them differently and they began to see me differently, and interacted with me in a whole new way.  It was comforting to cuddle with a cat at night, as I am away from my dog Bella and still grieving the loss of my bulldog Puzo.  As I cuddled with cats on this trip, my friend reminded me that cats are a symbolic of “rebirth and resurrection.”  

Recently, I met up with a friend and her friend at a NYC restaurant.  We ordered many things off the menu, cocktails, lattes, appetizers, many courses.  Because her friend’s husband is the head chef, the meal was comped.  All we needed to pay was the tip. Another blessing.  Yesterday, I began to realize on this trip, many people who I have spent time with have offered to pay for meals or drinks, because I am not currently employed.  They’ve offered me the fortune to stay at their homes, and I am so appreciative.  Regardless where I have lived, I have offered the same to others or to pay for meals or drinks.  In fact, while I was away from Paris, people have stayed in my home.  One particular friend is staying in my home the entire time to watch Bella.  Kindness is being paid back.

         Before I had the meal with my friends, I stopped by TKTS to buy last minute tickets to a Broadway show.  The associate said, “do you want orchestra seats center for $89?”  For a moment I thought, that may be too costly. Shouldn’t I buy the cheapest ones available?  But then I thought, why not treat myself for an additional $30.  He replied, “I will get the best tickets I can for you.”  I got the sixth row center for the show new musical 1776. When I looked online how much those tickets sold for, it was $255 each.  Thank you TKTS worker.

         Then yesterday morning, when I popped to Starbucks, I ordered a large coffee and used rewards for a free banana loaf bread.  The staff member got me a medium coffee, I was confused as I ordered a large. I didn’t complain, as I was going to simply take the medium coffee.  It was not a big deal.   But they said, you can keep this and I will get you the large.  Wow, thank you Starbucks worker.  I then noticed the pattern the past six weeks.  People have continued to be gracious and kind to me, and although I was appreciative of this, I didn’t live in a state of gratitude.  

         Last week, at an alternative healing conference, I had various interactions with healers and psychics.  So many people told me that the beauty in my life that was unfolding.  One intuitive woman began giving me an impromptu reading and offered to share with me the gifts that are occurring, and how my purpose may currently be redirected for a higher purpose. 

         There have been so many amazing words and kind gestures offered to me, but I was blind to them.  I was in my own embarrassment and sorrow for my future not going as planned, that I refused to see the kindness that was occurring in that moment.  I am thinking back to the day five weeks ago, when I received difficult news that things may not go my way for this next step in my life.  I was so tearful as I walked the streets of New York with my mother.  But strangers tried to comfort me in the city, whether they offered me a compliment on the dress I was wearing or make me smile by saying a joke as a driver walked by.  They attempted to make me smile and get me out of the moment of grief.  I couldn’t see that.  I saw only my own misery.  But now I do.

Even friends and family continuing to reach out to see how my status in on this new goal and collectively empathizing with my frustration, those small moments of thoughtfulness matter.  And I appreciate it.  I may not have showed it at the time, but I appreciate it now.  I think that this is something to keep in mind.  Yes, writing your daily gratitude is important, but we can habituate to it.  Just like any activity in life, it can lose it’s essence.  It’s important sometimes to step back slow down, and not just verbalize gratitude, but feel it in your body, sense it, recall it, look people in the eyes when you say thank you.  Reflect on it at a later point, and pass the positive energy on.  I actually have run out of my tangible gratitude cards on this trip, which rarely happens.  I usually have an abundance of them.  But so many people were kind, that I gave them all out.  And still there’s so much more I want to give back.  

So as I write this blog post, I want to offer this to you. Take a moment to see how things are going right in your life.  Notice the support others are offering to you.  This may be in the guise of animals, strangers, friends, family, or opportunities.    Allow yourself to grieve for the dream you may have to let go of right now.  But also realize the universe does have your back.  There may a greater dream the world has planned waiting for you, but you have to have your eyes open to see it. 

“Trust that your wounds are exactly as the Universe planned. They were divinely placed in your life in the perfect order so that you could show up for them with love and remember the light within.” ― Gabrielle Bernstein, The Universe Has Your Back: Transform Fear to Faith

Kindness as Purpose

The past month I have been travelling in America, visiting family members and friends.  But also during the journey I explored New Orleans.  It was the first time me or my mother went to New Orleans, and we wanted to experience Halloween there together.  Viola!  We did. 

It’s definitely a city of contradictions, and I think I will need some time process the experience there.  The resilience, mixed with poverty, history, tragedy, joy, celebration, and traditions.  There’s a lot to unpack in this one city.

But one thing I found fascinating was the kindness I experienced there.  Regardless if the person we were interacting with was a taxi driver, store shop attendant, tour guide, waiter, or an African drum circle drummer- there was pure kindness.  Nobody asked you about your profession.  Some people opened up with ease and told their life stories.  After doing so, they encouraged us to experience the best their city had to offer.  I appreciated that.  I gave out many of these Puzo Bella kindness cards, perhaps you received one (if you are reading this).  I wanted to return any kind of warmth and gratitude back to them. 

  I couldn’t help but wonder, what if our perspective of purpose was all wrong.  What if our purpose here on Earth was to simply be kind to others?  This is all.   It impacts others’ lives, it’s positively contagious, and others’ lives are momentarily lifted.  Life doesn’t have to be so complicated with the questions of “what should I do with my life?” or “how can I leave my mark on the world?”  It could be as simple as how can I express kindness today?  Perhaps that is enough. 

I hope this moment of clarity stays with me in this next phase of life.  As I explore the next phase ahead of me and contemplate on what my purpose is and how it is directed, can I remind myself my purpose today can equate with kindness?  It could be words of encouragement to a friend or family member.  A smile to a stranger.  Or a momentary conversation with an acquaintance, where your entire presence is made available.  Kindness is priceless.  It can be enough.  

“Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.” —Mother Teresa.

Softening your Traveler’s Gaze

What would happen if instead of viewing what went wrong in our day, we focused on what’s right?  I know many people have a gratitude practice, where you reflect either at the beginning or end of your day about what positive things have occurred.  But can we do this now in real time?  

I am at the airport flying to the states for one month.  Travelling can always bring about stress for people.  Everything has to align up perfectly for you to take your flight.  My friend Isabella arrived yesterday from America to Paris to watch my dog for the next month.  There were many mishaps that could have occurred but all was well for her journey, which in turn impacted my journey.  I pre-booked an Uber for this morning at 5:50 am.  The driver could have cancelled last minute (as has happened before), there could be traffic, or an accident.  But he was on time and friendly.  I was surprised to find a bit of a line at the airport at the check in area, but I chose to listen to a meditation when in line.  I closed my eyes and surrendered, I gently peaked my eyelids open at times to ensure if I needed to waddle several steps forward.  As I met with a staff member to ask questions of why I was in Paris, I was calm and peaceful.  She even inquired of the details of my book.  It was as if the universe was continuing to nudge me to get back to writing.  Another staff member who printed my ticket and complimented the color of my luggage.  Since my flight is nearly full, she offered to check in my carry on for free.  I obliged.  It’s always a pleasant turn of events when things line up.  I couldn’t help but compare it to last week’s flight to Spain, where there were so many missteps.  But we still landed on time. 

When we can focus on what goes right as it is happening, versus taking it for granted, there is beauty in this.  We can enjoy life as it is occurring, not just in retrospect. We can also show appreciation for those we interact with, friends and strangers, in real time.  Look them in the eyes and say thank you.  Giving out these Puzo/Bella gratitude cards (which you may have received once if reading this) helps slow me down during this process and be present with who is in front of me.  It reminds me there is an opportunity to be grateful and personable at any moment.